Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is heralded as one of the nation’s leading publicity events: The annual Coney Island happening attracts tens of thousands of spectators, worldwide press coverage, and a frenzy of social media chatter. Since 1972, the event and its simple rules — whichever contestant consumes the most hot dogs in 10 minutes, wins — has catapulted both Nathan’s and the contest participants to fame.
This year was no different. Earlier this week, Joey Chestnut reclaimed the title from Matt Stonie by scarfing down 70 hot dogs — no easy feat. Watching the spectacle, a marketing expert can’t
help but think: How did this competition evolve into an entertainment sensation?
The answer: The people behind it. From the PR folks who laid the groundwork, to the contestants and their fascinating personal brands, below are the people who made hot dog eating a national phenomenon.
In 1997, brothers and PR mavens George and Richard Shea — while working with Nathan’s — transformed competitive eating into a lucrative multi-million dollar sport. The duo formed the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), later renamed Major League Eating, to serve as the governing body for all competitive eating sports. Now, the organization boasts 100 annual events across the country, complete with safety guidelines and rankings.
The Sheas struck gold: By creating an official structure, they successfully raised the event’s profile, lured marquee-name sponsors, and transformed competitive eating into a major attraction. In short: The contest has generated a publicity boon for Nathan’s that no amount of paid advertising could ever achieve.
Nathan’s is hardly alone: smart publicity stunts have brought plenty of other brands big success. The Rose Bowl began as a way to shine a spotlight on Pasadena, California. Hollywood honchos started the Academy Awards to raise Tinseltown’s profile. And local boosters organized the Miss America pageant to attract tourists to Atlantic City post Labor Day. More recently, we’ve seen the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge make headlines.
We’ve discussed the brand masterminds behind the contest. Now, what about the brand masterminds who compete?
“Major League Eating has been very lucky to have some amazing characters in its ranks over the years,” says Richard Shea. “Since the League was formed in the late 90s, competitors have nurtured their own brand. Initially, it may have been as simple as nicknames, attire, and some earned media. In recent years, eaters have certainly embraced social media and other digital platforms to amplify their individual personas.”
Self-branding and self-promotion are a paramount part of all athletes’ careers, whether those athletes compete on the gridiron, baseball diamond, or hot dog eating stage. And just as in all major sports, competitive eaters don flamboyant costumes and train relentlessly. Let’s take a look at four of the most impressive eaters in the game today:
In 2001, Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi shattered the previous year’s record by devouring 50 hot dogs and claimed six consecutive victories. His trick? Kobayashi pioneered the “Solomon Method,” a technique that consists of breaking each hot dog in half, eating the two halves at once, and then eating the bun. Kobayashi’s saga isn’t without turbulence: He has not competed in the contest since 2009 due to his refusal to sign an exclusive contract with Major League Eating. He was also arrested in 2010 due to disruption at the annual competition, and was subsequently removed from Nathan’s Wall of Fame in 2011.
Despite this rebellious behavior, Kobayashi has managed to build a powerful brand for himself. He has his own line of hot dogs and has appeared in countless commercials and shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Wendy Williams Show. And, of course, Kobayashi continues to make history — he holds eight Guinness records.
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut is no doubt riding high given this week’s victory. Chestnut holds 38 International Federation of Competitive Eating records, including chili, jalapeño poppers, pork ribs, and shrimp wontons. Chestnut made a name for himself eating — gulp — asparagus. One integral part of Chestnut’s brand? Music. Chestnut’s entrance ballad at competitions is “Baba O’Riley” by The Who, which features the line “Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals.”
Twenty-four-year-old California native Matt Stonie — nicknamed “Megatoad” — has made social media a chief part of his personal brand. He’s active on Twitter, and his claim to fame is his YouTube Channel. To date, Stonie has garnered nearly 2 million subscribers, and his “Massive Ice Cream Sundae Challenge” (11,000 calories) has nabbed around 10 million views. And it’s not just attention — it pays, too. Stonie earned six figures in 2015 through prize money, appearances, and other related fees.
Mary Bowers, who hails from Beverly Hills, CA, is one of Major League Eating’s most recognizable personalities. Positioned as a “Foodie Fashionista,” Mary Bowers is a stand-out in her own right. I caught up with Mary a few minutes after she landed at LAX this week. “I have a degree in architecture and had been modeling for local designers, so creating foodie fashions was a logical blending of traditional skills into something unique,” she explained. “It’s really resonated with competitive eating fans.” Bowers is President/CEO of Eat! Be Mary!, Inc. (www.EatBeMary.com), which promises to reinforce her personal brand in both competitive eating and fashion for years to come.
The Icing on the Hot Dog
In addition to the popular ESPN broadcast, the contest generates nearly one billion consumer impressions via earned media each year. (And that’s not even counting the amount of online chatter around the hashtag #hotdogeatingcontest.) Indeed, almost three-quarters of Nathan’s brand mentions in a given year occur around the annual contest, according to a recent piece published in AdWeek. And it’s not just Nathan’s reaping the rewards: Contestants like Chestnut see a massive spike in attention paid to their personal brands, too.
What started as a single hot dog stand at Coney Island has reached mega brand status for Nathan’s and competitors alike. Remember, a lot can happen in a New York minute.